... easily the most comprehensive work ever written about the town’s social history during the transcendentalist era ... Mr. Gross’s historiography is patient, thorough, cumulative ... One of the most fascinating chapters in Mr. Gross’s account examines a number of young men and women of the village who fell under the spell of Emerson’s thought ... Mr. Gross’s richly detailed account shows us how such a surprising conjunction of place and thought could occur.
Gross ably depicts how Concord shaped these two writers, and how they also departed from town norms. Yet his narrative of town life too often becomes an end in itself and overwhelms any relation to the transcendentalists. This is especially true with regard to politics ... So why all the detail from the amity-filled Era of Good Feelings to the pitched battles between Masons and Anti-Masons, and the decades of clashes in between? More than 600 pages of text, conveyed in very small type, this tome requires the most patient and indulgent of readers. Trimming down the excess surely would have sharpened a focus on the relationship of Concord to its favorite sons ... Still, it’s hard not to respect this labor of a lifetime. His scholarship, based on research in many other libraries as well, is impeccable. In balance...an essential work on these towering figures of American literature.
The phrase 'lost in the weeds' is only an insult when it assumes one doesn’t want to be there. Gross appears to be perfectly content in them. When he and the reader reach a clearing in those weeds, he’s good at saying why they matter (in the case of pencils and other commerce, it’s the world being reshaped by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution), but those clearings can be achingly far apart ... The arrival and influence of the Transcendentalists lacks such a clear endgame—which is fine, but it seems perverse that Emerson and Thoreau rarely appear in the first, long half of a book with this title ... You sometimes sense that Gross’s Concord is somehow more detailed than the place itself was. This is, in a purely industrious way, inarguably impressive. It is also, for long stretches, not easy to read. The book becomes more inviting when Gross finally plants Emerson and Thoreau in his extensively tilled soil ... One learns a great deal in this book—about religious history, the railroad’s influence on smaller-town living, changing theories of education, tensions between individualism and collectivism that still bedevil the country today. But despite the benefits of Gross’s low-flying genre, which has spawned shelves of excellent books, it’s hard not to wish he had spent just a bit more time in this one at 30,000 feet.
Gross has delivered a second harvest of his career-long work. It is a measured, beautiful volume that brings warm life, accuracy, and complexity to local history, swooping between the bird’s-eye view and the tracery of many individual destinies ... Gross uses our devotion to those familiar heroes to interest us in the ordinary story of a tight-knit town turned unusual birthplace ... Gross’s 600 pages of absorbing narrative, plus 200 more of illuminating notes and documentation, are a refresher course in the birth of a market culture and a mass democracy in the age of Andrew Jackson, followed by the rise of the antislavery cause and stirrings of sectional conflict. Gross gives these grand trends a habitation in 25 square miles of Massachusetts farmland, where he detects a steady erosion of social unity ... puts Thoreau’s experiment in solitude in context ... Gross’s fascinating revelation is that boys like Keyes came under the spell of Emerson.
Gross has little feel for Emerson and Thoreau as writers, and in searching for their missing careers as activists seems to mistake what the two men were really up to. When Thoreau noted in Walden, 'As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full,' he didn’t mean that he had opted instead to do bad. He meant that his true business was elsewhere ... Emerson finally wins Gross’s fuller approval around 1844, when, by then firmly established as the leading voice of intellectual renewal in the United States, he takes a public stand against slavery ... My favorite passage of The Transcendentalists and Their World comes at the very end, six hundred pages in, when Gross offers a vigorous reading of the 'Bean Field' chapter of Walden ... If Gross spent more time in the writings, and less in the public square, we might see an answer to Emerson’s double-edged question, 'Where do we find ourselves?' in Walden and Emerson’s essays.
Gross' extraordinarily comprehensive, penetrating and intimate community study demonstrates that Concord was not a sleepy, static pastoral place ... Gross is less successful in addressing the relationship between his Transcendentalists' social and political views, which, not surprisingly, reflected the ferment in Concord (and much of the rest of the nation) and the fundamental precepts of their often abstract philosophy ... Along with immense respect for Gross' mastery of Concord's history, I wonder if he's giving the town too much credit—and blame.
In Gross’s telling, this story is about how people in the mid-nineteenth century tried to make sense of a rapidly changing society. It’s also—though less clear from his account—a story about their refusal to make sense of their past ... The level of detail Gross brings to The Transcendentalists and their World is its most enjoyable and also occasionally its most overwhelming feature ... the narrative washes over its reader with wave after wave of minutiae ... Though Gross offers critiques of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s evasions, The Transcendentalists and Their World does not capture the extent of the mid–nineteenth-century Black or indigenous experience that the Transcendentalists excluded from their thinking. Gross attends carefully to how the white residents of the town came to support abolition, in part due to the activism of the members of Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, and provides probably the most detailed account to date of Emerson’s excruciatingly slow windup ... But a reader of The Transcendentalists and Their World can go through this entire book and come away with little idea that the era, and region under study, was abounding with Black- and indigenous-led resistance to the practices of enslavement, unequal treatment, and settler violence. Without these voices present in the book, it is hard for readers to fully grasp how, in their attempts to transcend the past rather than face it, both Emerson and Thoreau fit into a long tradition of American disavowal of that past.
... rich and revealing on every page, but it is also a doorstopper. The ideal place to read it might be a cabin in the New England woods, perhaps near a pond, and maybe over the course of a long winter. And it would help if someone brought you your meals.
Emerson and Thoreau loom large in this study, but the bulk of the book is about Concord, as a prequel to how Transcendentalism emerged there and the form it took ... This lively social and cultural history should reward most readers interested in this critical period of American history.
... a deeply researched inquiry into the idea of individualism as expressed and grappled with by the two most famous transcendentalists ... Drawing on prodigious scholarly and archival sources, Gross creates a vibrant portrait of Concord, Massachusetts ... [a] large, colorful cast of characters ... Gross incisively examines Emerson’s 'masculine version of individualism' ... A vigorous, compelling American history.
... a rich and immersive portrait of 19th-century Concord, Mass., and the Transcendentalist movement that originated there ... Seamlessly integrating a wealth of primary and secondary sources into his narrative, Gross brings 19th-century New England to vivid life and portrays the personal dynamics between Transcendentalism’s leading figures with insight. This sweeping study brilliantly illuminates a crucial period in American history.